By Karine Kalantarian and Emil Danielyan
The Armenian authorities continue to arrest and imprison participants of unsanctioned anti-government rallies despite strong criticism of the practice voiced by the Council of Europe and other international human rights organizations.
A spokesman for the national Police Service told RFE/RL on Wednesday that 30 people were detained for committing “petty hooliganism,” “disrupting public order,” and “disobeying legitimate orders of police officers” during and after Tuesday’s opposition protest in Yerevan. He said seven of them were sentenced to up to 15 days in prison and 21 others were fined and set free by courts overnight. The cases of the two other detainees were still being “considered” as of late afternoon, the official added.
Like most of the recent street protests, Tuesday’s rally was peaceful and orderly, ending in a march past the police headquarters in the Armenian capital. Its detained participants were tried under Armenia’s Soviet-era Code of Administrative Offences. Dozens of protesters have been subjected to the same punishment since the start of the opposition campaign against President Robert Kocharian one month ago.
The authorities’ controversial enforcement of the Administrative Code, which reached its climax during last year’s presidential election, has been repeatedly condemned by domestic and international human rights organizations. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) demanded last week an “immediate end” to the practice which it says runs counter to European standards.
According to Human Rights Watch, the trials in administrative cases have taken place in gross violation of the due process of law guaranteed by Armenian law and European conventions. “Defendants in administrative cases were denied access to lawyers, not able to present evidence, and routinely convicted on the basis of several minutes of police evidence,” the New York-based watchdog said in a report issued on Tuesday. “Practical barriers to appeal make it virtually impossible to take the cases to higher courts.”
The 21-page report is the most comprehensive account yet of the government crackdown on the Armenian opposition. It carries reported details of government restrictions on travel to Yerevan, the mass arrests and mistreatment of opposition supporters, physical attacks on journalists as well as the “excessive use of police force” during the break-up of the April 12-13 opposition rally.
The Armenian authorities maintain that the crackdown was needed for countering what they see as an opposition bid to seize power by unconstitutional means. They have arrested and charged several senior opposition members with calling for a “violent overthrow of constitutional order” and publicly insulting Armenian leaders.
“The Armenian government embarked on a campaign to break the popular support for the political opposition with mass arrests, violent dispersal of demonstrations, raids on political party headquarters, repression of journalists, and restrictions on travel to prevent people from participating in demonstrations,” reads HRW’s “briefing paper.” “Hundreds of people were detained, many for up to fifteen days; some were tortured or ill-treated in custody.”
The report has a separate section on the police ransacking of the offices of the three main opposition parties in the early hours of April 13. It quotes several female activists of one of those parties arrested in the raids as saying that they were for hours beaten up and humiliated by senior police officers in Yerevan’s Erebuni district.
“[The chief of the Erebuni police] came up to me and said 'So you want to take power,' and slapped me three times very hard on the face,” one of the women told Human Rights Watch. She said the officer, Never Hovannisian, then went to each person in turn and assaulted them, kicking and kneeing them, and punching one woman in the head.
Another woman arrested on that night was cited as saying, “He came in and said 'Ah, it was you who was at the protest.' I said 'no, it wasn't me.' He began to beat me with his fists and knees to my stomach. I fell and he kicked me on my back. He said, 'now all our men will come in and rape you.' He said worse things... He went on four about twenty minutes.”